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Through the Looking-Glass | Symbols

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Forest

Within Through the Looking-Glass, the symbol of the wood (which modern American readers will more typically call "woods" or "forest") is used repeatedly. This is a traditional symbol, one that Jungian psychoanalysts regard as tied to the unconscious. The Celts often considered the forest a natural shrine. Literature makes use of it also as part of the "trials" a hero must overcome. For Alice, the wood is one of the obstacles she must traverse, but it is also a representation of her fears.

When Alice first approaches the wood, she is apprehensive. "She very soon came to an open field, with a wood on the other side of it: it looked much darker than the last wood, and Alice felt a little timid about going into it." The moment of fear passes as she decides she is not willing to go back. However, once inside the wood, after she follows the path to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, she again feels ready to move past the wood. She mentions to the twins, "I was thinking, which is the best way out of this wood: it's getting so dark." The brothers ignore her concerns, even though she asks more than once.

Her fears are worsened at hearing a sound "like the puffing of a large steam-engine in the wood near them, though she feared it was more likely to be a wild beast." The sound turns out to be not a wild beast but the sleeping Red King.

The White Queen views the wood as a positive place, as she remarks to Alice, "You must be very happy, living in this wood, and being glad whenever you like!" Alice refutes this by telling the queen, "Only it is so very lonely here!"

The third royal Alice encounters in the wood is the White King. He is sitting and writing in his book. When Alice notices the White Queen running, the king's response is an affirmation of the threat of the woods: "There's some enemy after her, no doubt. That wood's full of them."

This is further emphasized by the words of the White Knight: "I'll see you safe to the end of the wood—and then I must go back, you know. That's the end of my move."

In Alice's experiences, the wood symbolizes both danger and a place of obstacles to overcome.

Sleeping Red King

The Red King embodies Carroll's musings on the nature of reality. Through the Looking-Glass is, at its core, Alice's dream of a mirror-image world: the sleeping Red King, a fellow dreamer, is her inverse. According to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Red King is a godlike being who is dreaming of Alice. They say Alice isn't a real girl, but only a character in the king's dream, and she will cease to exist when the king wakes. Alice and the reader are asked to ponder Carroll's puzzle: who is the dreamer and which world is the real one?

Carroll, a classically trained churchman, was familiar with the philosophy of Irish Bishop George Berkeley (1685–1753), whose beliefs included the theory that people and the entire world exist as ideas within the mind of God. Using satire, Carroll alludes to Bishop Berkeley's philosophy through the character of the sleeping Red King, a ruler portrayed unflatteringly as "lying crumpled up into a sort of untidy heap and snoring loud[ly]."

Carroll addresses the question of reality again at the end of the narrative, as Alice inquires, "who it was that dreamed it all. ... [The Red King] was part of my dream ... but I was part of his dream, too!" One last poem describes Alice, "moving under skies / Never seen by waking eyes" and asks readers, "Life, what is it but a dream?"

Rushes

Rushes symbolize the bloom of purity and innocence in childhood and its decline and loss when children reach maturity. As Alice gathers "the darling scented rushes," she is lured onward by "more lovely one[s]" that are just out of reach. Fixated on the rushes in the distance, she hardly notices the ones she has already picked "[begin] to fade and ... lose all their scent and beauty from the ... moment ... she pick[s] them." Fascinated with young children, to whom he became a sort of honorary uncle, Carroll met the three young Liddell daughters in April 1856—a week before Alice's fourth birthday. Alice and her sisters were then at an age Carroll described as "innocent unconsciousness" that "gives one a feeling of reverence, as [in] the presence of something sacred." Carroll captured the sisters' early childhood in photographs and—when Alice was 10—in the pages of Alice in Wonderland. Preserved on paper, their innocence would never fade, unlike that of the growing girls.

When Alice turned 13 Carroll was in the process of publishing Alice in Wonderland (1865). By then—much like the cut reeds—Carroll felt Alice's allure was fading. In a May 11, 1865, diary entry he wrote, "Met Alice and Miss Prickett (the Liddell governess). ... Alice seems changed a good deal, and hardly for the better—probably going through the usual awkward stage of transition (an allusion to puberty)."

Carroll's longing for lost innocence is reflected in the poems that open and close Through the Looking-Glass. In them he speaks of "'happy summer days' gone by / And vanish'd summer glory," mentioning that Alice "still ... haunts me, phantomwise." Alice was a young woman of 19 when Through the Looking-Glass was published in 1871. Carroll sent her a leather-bound volume as her personal copy.

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